Soroptimists to the rescue

Deepa Bhasthi | Updated on August 30, 2019

Doing good: SI clubs take up projects that are linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals — food security, healthcare and education   -  SOROPTIMIST INTERNATIONAL

A century-old global women’s movement, Soroptimist International has 14 chapters in India, and is quietly making the world better, one volunteer at a time

It all started with an observation by a developmental paediatrician at a meeting. Children from affluent urban families did not have much empathy for those who were less fortunate, Dr Nandini Mundkur told members of Soroptimist International (SI), a global women’s movement. The discussions that followed at the Bengaluru meeting gave birth to SI’s Fistful of Grain project, involving students of elite schools and colleges in the city. The students were given jute bags to take home and fill with a fistful of rice or pulses every day. The bags were collected at the end of each month and the grains were distributed to orphanages, old-age homes or community meal programmes. The project was so successful that it was expanded into a national-level effort by SI clubs across the country. It still continues, with SI Bengaluru having covered about 15-20 schools so far. The jute bags that are distributed to children hold about two kilos each, and the grains collected from each school varies from 50 to 100 kg.

For a nearly century-old organisation with 75,000 members worldwide, SI is curiously low-profile. Few know that the volunteers’ body with some 3,000 clubs in 122 countries has 14 chapters in India under the parent body, the National Association of Soroptimist International of India (NASI). “We have content writers, teachers, doctors, counsellors, women from business families and housewives. Most become members through word-of-mouth and with references from existing members; some write to us directly, asking to be a part of the club,” says NASI communications officer Jamuna Ravi, a general manager at Shell India Markets Private Limited. Much like several other organisations, SI clubs in India and elsewhere take up projects that are linked to the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals — food security, healthcare, education and so on. SI, however, works exclusively with girls and women, specifically in providing education and other opportunities through local projects.

Their focus, points out NASI national president and Pune SI member Anu Wakhlu, is enshrined in the movement’s name: Soror, Latin for sister, and Optima, meaning best, together stand for ‘the best for women’. Over the years, the global sisterhood has helped rescue women threatened by the Nazis during World War II, mobilised women to establish an open-air hospital school in the UK, provided vocational training for women and children, and housing for the disadvantaged, she says.

The first Soroptimist club was set up in California in 1921. Its 80 members — business and professional women from Oakland — met every week and discussed ways to improve the lives of people. Their first project involved conserving the region’s ancient redwood trees. They successfully fought the powerful timber lobby and had a law passed to preserve the trees on protected land, which exists even today.

In India, there are three clubs in Mumbai, two each in Kolkata, Bengaluru, Chennai and Pune, and one each in Burdwan, Madurai and Hyderabad. Each club has 25–40 members. The SI clubs in India work on a variety of issues. In Mumbai, members run a project called Free a Girl Movement - School for Justice to rescue child sex workers and train them to become lawyers. The Green Umbrella project of SI Kolkata aims to improve the green cover in an unutilised section of a women’s correctional home by planting trees and cultivating vegetable patches, while SI Pune’s Let Me Bloom project helps girl students complete their education. “We found that merely sponsoring them was not enough. So now we mentor and guide them as well,” Wakhlu says. The members organise career guidance talks for students, and tutors older women in financial literacy.

The SI clubs usually team up with NGOs working in the target areas. “Sometimes we work directly with the beneficiaries too,” Wakhlu adds. Ravi explains that the SI primarily acts as a networking partner, connecting potential donors with would-be beneficiaries. The funding comes mainly through donations and sometimes through ticketed events. “We organised a dance programme at Chowdaiah Memorial Hall last year. ,” Ravi adds. If they need an expert in some field for advice, networking or as a resource, a member is able to step in; the variety in SI’s membership ensures that they never have to look too far.

Wakhlu wants to set up a new club in India every two years, take SI to smaller towns and cities and expand in Delhi, Chandigarh and beyond. “With CSR (corporate social responsibility) mandated by law, there are always a lot of companies looking for new, good projects to donate to,” Ravi says. This has helped SI further expand the scope of its activities. “The CSR initiatives of companies often have themes that are in line with the goals we have. For instance, a member who is a business professional gave us a small space in JP Nagar in Bengaluru where we are setting up a vocational training centre,” she added.

A movement by women, for women and of women, it hopes to go places.

Deepa Bhasthi is a Bengaluru-based writer

Published on August 30, 2019

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